In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, here are 25 songs that touch on civil rights and race relations. This is not meant to be a complete list, but it’s a good cross-section of artists, styles and themes.
Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit,” 1939. “Southern trees bear a strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the roots.” That’s the opening of this haunting ballad, which deals with the horrors of lynchings, which were not-so-distant history in 1939. The song was banned by some radio networks as too controversial.
Frank Sinatra, “The House I Live In,” 1946. This patriotic ballad includes a line “All races and religions/That’s America to me.” Such a lyric would be unremarkable today, but in 1946, it was a progressive step. Sinatra sang it in a 10-minute short film of the same name in which he starred.
William Tabbert, “Carefully Taught,” 1949. Broadway musicals were hardly known for social commentary in the 1940s, but Rodgers & Hammerstein challenged that idea with this song from their 1949 smash South Pacific. “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid/Of…people whose skin is a different shade,” Tabbert sang in his role as Lt. Joseph Cable.
Mahalia Jackson, “How I Got Over,” 1961. Jackson performed this gospel hymn at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, at which Dr. King gave his historic “I Have A Dream” speech. Clara Ward composed it in 1951 after she and other family members had a harrowing experience in the segregated south. Aretha Franklin and Blind Boys of Alabama later recorded the song.
Peter, Paul & Mary, “Blowin’ In The Wind,” 1963. The trio’s version of Bob Dylan’s anthem hit #2 in August 1963, less than two weeks before they performed it at the March on Washington. “How many years can some people exist/Before they’re allowed to be free?,” Dylan asked. A version by Stevie Wonder reached #9 in September 1966. Peter, Paul & Mary had reached the top 10 in 1962 with “If I Had A Hammer” (co-written by Pete Seeger), which they also performed at the March on Washington.
Joan Baez, “We Shall Overcome,” 1963. Baez’s version of this anthem, which was co-written by Pete Seeger, reached #90 in November 1963. She performed this song and “Oh Freedom” at the March on Washington. In February 2010, she performed it at a White House celebration of music from the civil rights era.
Bob Dylan, “Only A Pawn In Their Game.” Dylan wrote this song following the June 1963 assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. The song suggests that Evers’ killer doesn’t bear sole responsibility for his crime, as he was only a pawn of rich white elites who pitted poor whites against blacks so as to distract them from their position on “the caboose of the train.” Dylan performed the song and “When The Ship Comes In” at the March on Washington. Both songs later on appeared on his 1964 album The Times They Are a-Changin.’
Sam Cooke, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” This classic reached #31 in March 1965. It appeared on the B side of Cooke’s top 10 hit, “Shake.” Both songs were released in January 1965, a month after Cooke was shot to death by a motel manager. The hopeful lyrics of “A Change Is Gonna Come” are belied by the song’s weary tone. The song has been covered by everyone from the 5th Dimension to Adam Lambert.
The Impressions, “People Get Ready,” 1965. Curtis Mayfield’s song reached #14 in March 1965. Another thoughtful Mayfield song, “Choice Of Colors,” reached #21 in 1969. Jeff Beck & Rod Stewart charted with “People Get Ready” in 1985.
Aretha Franklin, “Respect,” 1967. Franklin’s definitive version of Otis Redding’s 1965 hit reached #1 in June 1967. It’s as much a feminist anthem as a statement of black pride. It paved the way for such future empowerment anthems as “I Will Survive” and “I Am What I Am.”
Janis Ian, “Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking),” 1967. Ian’s tale of a thwarted interracial romance reached #14 in July 1967. It stirred considerable controversy, even though the protagonist gives in to society’s pressure and ends the relationship. Six years later, the Stories’ tale of an interracial romance, “Brother Louie,” barely raised a peep as it soared to #1.
James Brown, “Say It Loud—I’m Black And I’m Proud (Part I),” 1968. Brown and performed wrote the definitive black pride anthem, which hit #10 in October 1968. Key lyric: “We’d rather die on our feet/Than keep living on our knees.”
Dion, “Abraham, Martin And John,” 1968. This poignant song reached #4 in December 1968, eight months after Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis and six months after Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles. The sad, wistful melody captured how many people felt at the end of that tumultuous year. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and 75-year old comedienne Moms Mabley had top 40 hits with the song in 1969. The song returned to the top 10 in 1971 in a montage by DJ Tom Clay that also featured “What The World Needs Now Is Love.”
The Beatles, “Blackbird,” 1968. Paul McCartney’s ballad was meant to offer encouragement to the civil rights movement. In a 2002 interview on KCRW, McCartney explained, “This whole idea of ‘You were only waiting for this moment to arise’ was about, you know, the black people’s struggle in the southern states...” This was from the group’s double-disk opus, The Beatles.
Sly & the Family Stone, “Everyday People,” 1968. Leave it to Sly Stone to write a song that was both funky and as simple as a nursery rhyme: “There is a yellow one/That won’t accept the black one/That won’t accept the red one/That won’t accept the white one/Different strokes for different folks.” This hit #1 in February 1969. A cover by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts made the top 40 in 1983. An adaptation by Arrested Development made the top 10 in 1992.
Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On,” 1971. Gaye’s classic song, which manages to be both elegant and soulful, reached #2 in April 1971. It was from his landmark album of the same name, which also yielded “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” Cyndi Lauper covered the song in 1987. The all-star Artists Against AIDS, which included Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys and Destiny’s Child, recorded it in 2001 to benefit worldwide AIDS research.
Three Dog Night, “Black & White,” 1972. This song was written in 1954, shortly after the Supreme Court decision which outlawed racial segregation in public schools. Pete Seeger was the first to record the song in 1956. Three Dog Night’s punchy pop version hit #1 in September 1972.
McFadden & Whitehead, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” 1979. This could be interpreted as a black pride anthem, or just as a positive song that radiates great energy. Gene McFadden and John Whitehead co-wrote the song, which hit #13 in July 1979. The song was played at the Democratic National Convention in 2008 on the night Sen. Barack Obama accepted the presidential nomination.
Stevie Wonder, “Happy Birthday,” 1980. Wonder introduced this exuberant song on his Hotter Than July album in 1980: It seemed to give the drive to have Dr. King’s birthday declared a national holiday the final push it needed. President Reagan signed the bill on Nov. 2, 1983. On Oct. 16, 2011, Wonder performed his song at a dedication ceremony for the King Memorial on the National Mall in Washington D.C. Wonder has a long history of recording politically pointed songs. Among them: “Living For The City,” “You Haven’t Done Nothin” and “Skeletons.”
Paul McCartney (with Stevie Wonder), “Ebony And Ivory,” 1982. This glossy brotherhood anthem hit #1 in May 1982. It’s so candy-coated that it hasn’t aged well, though it was just right for the moment. The song inspired a wicked parody by Eddie Murphy (as Wonder) and Joe Piscopo (as Frank Sinatra) on Saturday Night Live (“You are blind as a bat/I have sight.”)
Grand Master Flash & The Furious Five Featuring: Melle Mel and Duke Bootee, “The Message,” 1982. This ground-breaking hip-hop smash hit #62 in November 1982. It was the first rap record voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and the first to be added to the U.S. National Recording Registry of historic sound recordings.
U2, “Pride (In The Name Of Love), 1984. Bono was inspired to co-write this song after reading biographies of Dr. King and Malcolm X. It includes an erroneous reference to the time of day that Dr. King was shot (“early morning,” when it was actually after 6 p.m.). The song hit #33 in December 1984.
Artists United Against Apartheid, “Sun City,” 1985. Steven Van Zandt wrote this song to rally opposition to South Africa’s policy of apartheid. The song hit #38 in December 1985. It has far more fire than “We Are The World” and “That’s What Friends Are For,” which came out that same year. The record features such stars as Peter Gabriel, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and Bruce Springsteen, Van Zandt’s boss in the E Street Band.
Bruce Hornsby And the Range, “The Way It Is,” 1986. This jazzy pop song came out just four years after “Ebony And Ivory,” but it’s far more interesting musically and lyrically. The song references the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “They passed a law in ’64/To give those who ain’t got a little more/But it only goes so far….” The song hit #1 in December 1986.
Public Enemy, “By The Time I Get To Arizona.” This song was written in response to Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham’s 1987 decision not to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday for state workers. The piece is from the group’s 1991 album, Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black. The music video features historic images of police dogs and fire hoses being turned on protesters. Public Enemy had earlier scored with “Fight The Power” (from Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing) and “911 Is A Joke.”